What Would the World Be Like Without News? This Press Freedom Ad Imagines That Dystopia

Empty screens and blank pages illustrate the necessity of a free press

a blank TV screen
Journalists are under legal and personal attack in the U.S. as they continue to battle economic forces. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Headshot of Mónica Marie Zorrilla

Gerald Fischman. Rob Hiaasen. John McNamara. Rebecca Smith. Wendi Winters. A coalition of journalism outlets wants Americans to understand the threats journalists face by remembering the names of the five people, four of them reporters, killed during a targeted shooting at the Maryland-based Capital Gazette’s newsroom.

According to Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the need to stand up and inform the public about the “repressive” working conditions journalists face right here in the U.S. inspired the latest campaign from the nonprofit Reporters Committee of the Press and the CPJ, along with a coalition of 30 other partners including CNN, Sinclair, Twitter and The Washington Post.

Bipartisan research released by the Reporters Committee and Democracy Fund found that the majority of Americans are not aware of the increasingly dangerous climate for journalists. The study found 52% of Americans do not believe the First Amendment is under attack. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, this year alone there have been 18 subpoenas or legal orders, four leak prosecutions, 28 denials of access, 12 border stops, eight arrests and 31 attacks against journalists. 

Released on Nov. 7, the “Protect Press Freedom” campaign uses video, radio, digital, print and social media assets to communicate that to be free, we must be informed. The campaign hinges upon the sentiment expressed by Ida B. Wells, prolific African American journalist and civil rights activist: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” 

The campaign’s 60-second TV spot portrays a dystopic America without news, dramatizing that lack of access and censorship by emptying screens on phones and laptops of articles and headlines.

These images of screens and papers dissolving into nothingness are meant to appeal “to people on multiple levels and has a certain emotional impact, no matter what kind of news is important to the viewer,” Simon said.

“It might appeal to journalists and citizens who have seen newspapers in their communities disappear, and have felt the impact of what happens when you can’t access information, who can’t stay informed about their communities,” he continued.

Across the country, nearly 1,800 local newspapers have shuttered since 2004, leaving news deserts, especially in rural areas, in their wake.

On the campaign’s website, visitors can also explore key moments of press freedom throughout American history, learn how they can support local news outlets, highlight reporting they think is great with the hashtag #ProtectPressFreedom, and take a quiz to assess their knowledge.

This campaign follows a slew of other national and international campaigns that have popped up in the past year that denounce anti-press rhetoric. The New York Times released a number of ads in its Cannes Lions-winning “The Truth Is Worth It” campaign from Droga5, and this past month Australia’s Right to Know coalition pulled an advocacy stunt by glaringly redacting information on the front pages of daily newspapers. This week, the Wall Street Journal temporarily removed its paywall to encourage readers to read past clickbait and turn to trustworthy sources of information.

Speaking on behalf of the organizations involved with the “Protect Press Freedom” campaign, Reporters Committee executive director Bruce Brown said they hope the effort will “foster a conversation between news outlets and the public about the importance of protecting press freedom and standing up for our right to information.”

@monicroqueta monica.zorrilla@adweek.com Mónica is a breaking news reporter at Adweek.